US 'deeply concerned,' seeks more info on approvals

Cabinet okays legalization of 9 West Bank outposts in response to Jerusalem attacks

Plans for 10,000 settlement homes to be advanced along with the authorization of outposts, all of which were built without permits and some on private Palestinian land

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

The Sde Boaz outpost in the West Bank on October 11, 2022. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
The Sde Boaz outpost in the West Bank on October 11, 2022. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

The cabinet on Sunday approved the legalization of nine outposts deep in the West Bank in response to a string of recent Palestinian terror attacks in East Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the decision in a statement, listing the illegal outposts as Avigayil, Beit Hogla, Givat Harel, Givat Arnon, Mitzpe Yehuda, Malachei Hashalom, Asahel, Sde Boaz and Shacharit.

To legalize the outposts, the government will have to prove that they were established on what Israel considers to be state land. This will likely be difficult given that many of them, including almost all of Sde Boaz and Givat Harel, were built on private Palestinian land.

The High Court of Justice is likely to object to such legalizations and the process will often take months, if not years. However, the new hardline government is simultaneously advancing a series of contentious bills that would significantly restrict the ability of the judiciary to overrule such cabinet decisions. This is partially why settler leaders are among the most ardent advocates of plans to overhaul the judiciary.

One of the outposts, Givat Arnon, is located on land designated as an Israel Defense Forces firing zone in the northern West Bank, exposing a discrepancy between how the government treats unauthorized Israeli and Palestinian construction, given that the state has moved to demolish a series of Palestinian villages in an area known as Masafer Yatta that was also designated as a military firing zone.

Netanyahu also said that his cabinet members agreed to have the Defense Ministry body responsible for authorizing settlement construction convene in the coming days to advance plans for new Israeli construction in the West Bank.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Feb. 12, 2023. At right is Itamar Ben Gvir. (Amit Shabi / Pool)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a settler himself, said in a statement that plans for roughly 10,000 homes would soon be advanced, in what would be the largest batch of settler homes advanced by the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration in years. The move would also be consistent with the founding principles of the hardline coalition — that “the Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel,” including the West Bank.

While the international community considers all settlements illegal, Israel differentiates between settlement homes built and permitted by the Defense Ministry on land owned by the state, and illegal outposts built without necessary permits, often on private Palestinian land. However, outposts are sometimes established with the state’s tacit approval, and successive governments have sought to legalize at least some of the 100-plus unrecognized communities as a result.

Settler leaders and their supporters in the government have long advocated for deepening Israel’s expansion in the West Bank in response to terror attacks against Israelis. The policy’s backers argue that those seeking to harm Israelis will be deterred upon realizing that such attacks only lead to the strengthening of Israel’s grip on East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

While the Sunday cabinet decision was hailed by settler leaders, it was blasted by groups that advocate for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who argued that further entrenching Israel’s presence in the West Bank will make the framework all the more difficult.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh blasted the approvals as “a recipe for escalation, whose dangerous consequences for the region and the world cannot be avoided, as they threaten the Palestinians’ [very] existence.”

Shtayyeh called on the United Nations and the United States to intervene, noting that the Israeli cabinet approvals will test the seriousness of the Biden administration, whose senior officials visited over the past month and pledged to oppose such unilateral measures by Israel.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a press conference in Jerusalem on January 30, 2023. (DEBBIE HILL / POOL / AFP)

Pressed for comment on the matter, a senior Biden administration official told The Times of Israel, “We strongly oppose expansion of settlements, and we’re deeply concerned by reports about a process to legalize outposts that are illegal under Israeli law.”

“We are seeking more information from the Israeli government on what has actually been decided,” the official added.

Along with moves toward annexation and violations of the status quo at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, outpost legalization has been one of the red lines that the US has tried to draw since the new Israeli government took office less than two months ago.

Explaining the approach in an interview last month, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said, “We care deeply about preserving a two-state solution. And he understands [that] annexation, or even pseudo-annexation by lining up all the outposts, that [those things] don’t work for us.”

For its part, the Peace Now settlement watchdog said the cabinet approvals “prove to those who have not yet realized that the government’s approach is annexation on steroids” and argued that the coalition’s plans for the West Bank amount to an “existential threat.”

Netanyahu said in his Sunday statement that the cabinet vote took place after he held a series of consultations with far-right ministers Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, the national security minister, along with Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, who the premier has tapped as an unofficial point-man for Israel’s ties with the Biden administration.

Israeli police forensic team work at the site of a car-ramming attack at a bus stop in Ramot in Jerusalem, Friday, Feb. 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Netanyahu added that a smaller panel of senior ministers had also approved a series of measures aimed at combatting terrorism, including the deployment of reinforcement police and military troops in Jerusalem along with “increased police operational activity against inciters and supporters of terrorism.”

“The security forces will act in a targeted manner against the perpetrators of terrorism and there will be no collective punishment,” he added, in a remark ostensibly meant to assuage concerns that Israel’s tactics will lead to harm against innocent Palestinians.

The cabinet decision came two days after a Palestinian plowed his car into a bus stop in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramot, killing three — including five- and seven-year-old brothers — and injuring four other Israelis.

Two weeks earlier, a Palestinian man opened fire on Israeli civilians outside of a synagogue in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Neve Yaakov, killing seven people.

The next day, a 13-year-old Palestinian opened fire on Israelis walking outside Jerusalem’s Old City, injuring two of them.

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